The Old Woman Under the Tree
It is three days after my arrival in India and I am in Bhopal, in the Central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Despite being the site of the worst chemical accident in history, it seems quite an ordinary city, a provincial capital, ancient but unhistorical. I am staying with friends and they’ve loaned me their car and driver so I can go see the sights.
Early in the morning, before it’s begun to get hot, Mateen and I head out of the city. Already the streets are choked with traffic of a kind I’ve never before experienced: the traffic of diesel buses competing with cars, competing with rickshaws, competing with scooters, competing with bicycles, competing with people, and all deferring to cows.
We stall in this traffic for a long time, inching through the streets of old Bhopal. My friends live in the new city of genteel middle-class apartment buildings, wide empty roads, and patches of flowers munched by country goats. But here, by the mosque and the old city wall, the chaos is complete. As I breathe in its scent along with that of the diesel, I see a young woman wandering through the street. Her hair is shorn, her clothes dirty, her feet bare. She weaves in and out of traffic, her face a blank slate of tragedy. I find myself staring at her, unable to look away. I say to myself, “Please, let’s move, let’s move. Let’s move before she gets close, let’s move before I can see into her eyes.” Just in time we lurch onwards, and my gaze is taken away. We cross the railroad tracks, and in fits and starts make it out into the country. But her image stays with me, even as the city melts into hills and forests.
Mateen speaks very little English, but he tries hard to be a good guide. He’s enjoying the day out―a whole day to drive around and see things. Usually he spends his day taking my host from the apartment to work, and then picking him up for lunch, and then taking him back to work again. Now, he says to me, “Sanchi.” And we drive to Sanchi.
Once we’re out of the car, walking among the ancient stupas of the Emperor Ashoka’s golden Buddhist age, he points at things and calls them by name “Stupa.” “Stupa.” “Stupa.” “Old.” “Old.” “Old.” I try to lose him. I want to spend a moment on my own in the tranquility.
I shake off the traffic and the woman and the diesel, and sit looking down on the fields of Madhya Pradesh spread out below. They are verdant from the monsoon and covered with trees colored a shade of green I have never seen before. Are they a bit more yellow, a bit more blue? But too soon Mateen finds me, and makes me move on like a good tourist.
“Vidisha Caves.” The car whips along the road away from Sanchi, whips by those blue-green-yellow trees. We reach Vidisha, a small market town, and Mateen gets lost in its back streets. Again, urban life emerges and cuts to the core. No trees or flowers or ancient works of art soften the edges. Careening down the narrow alleys, people’s faces are thrust in front of me, inescapable. I stare into their eyes; they stare right back into mine. An open sewer runs alongside the road, alongside the doors to people’s houses. A toddler steps outside and defecates into the gutter. I feel the peace of Sanchi slip out of my head.
Eventually Mateen finds the road to the caves, a country road lined with tall, thin trees. It winds over a river where women are pounding saris against the rocks, and naked little boys are squealing while having a swim. At the end of the road, the Udaigiri caves appear, lonely landmarks, baking in the sun like so many tandoori ovens. A local man relieves Mateen of his guide duties. He proudly shows us the boar’s head incarnation of Vishnu, the beautiful carving that puts Vidisha on the map. Then Mateen waits by the car while the guide leads me to the other carvings in the harder-to-get-to caves. The drive over the river has brought back a little of the peace, but it is too, too hot for this sightseeing. I feel ill with the dust and the sun and the chaos that still bubbles underneath. But I clamber up the scorching rock and down into one cave and then up again and down into another. I will probably never see these caves again. It would be a shame if I missed something.
Finally, we are done. We descend the side of the rocky cliff and I head straightaway for the car. An ancient woman in a yellow sari sits nearby, shaded by a small tree. As I pass she greets me by saying, “Ram Ram”―invoking the name of God not once, but twice. I look into the woman’s eyes and in that moment see calm instead of chaos. It is a still moment of purity of place.
Desire for this type of moment is what brought me to India. But in the stillness I realize that I now have a new desire. It’s a newly found thirst not for this one perfect moment of purity, but for the orchestra of dissonance that has led up to it―the diesel madness of Bhopal, the strange green hills of Sanchi, the twisting back lanes of Vidisha, the hot, historic Udaigiri caves. This all is India and I am in the thick of it. You can’t have the peace without the chaos.
As the old woman keeps my gaze, I fold my hands in a namaste.
Then Mateen opens the car door, and calls for the tourist to move on.
Bhopal,” he says. “Home.”